Our conversation on salvation and atonement focused on two questions at our most recent gathering: (i) how do our understandings of salvation fare in the interaction between Christianity and other faith traditions? And, (ii) how is the issue of “faith versus works” related to salvation?
These two questions seemed to us to be pieces of the same puzzle in many ways. We talked about a hypothetical next-door neighbor who was a fine human being and who acted in kind and thoughtful ways, yet was of a different faith tradition. What about this individual when it comes to questions of salvation? Does this neighbor being kind and thoughtful have anything to do with salvation issues or are these “good works” irrelevant?
We talked briefly about the split in the historic tradition that occurred at the time of the Reformation in Europe when there was a backlash against various ideas that were thought by some to lean towards “works righteousness” in the life of the church. The swing to the opposite position then led to the stance that “faith alone” leads to salvation. There is the notion in the Wesleyan tradition that faith leads to good works of necessity such that the absence of good works is an indicator of the absence of faith. Wesley had thought about the extreme cases (such as the person who comes to faith but then drops dead of a heart attack immediately and so exhibits no “good works”) and wrote of the need for “time and opportunity” for good works to be exhibited, but in the general case saw that faith and good works are like the two sides of a piece of paper: you can’t have one without the other.
We thought about those who have never been exposed to Christianity in any way (the individual in the middle of the rain forest entered into the conversations once again – we may need to get him his own chair!) and saw that God’s grace reaches out to all people in various ways and that there seems to be ample evidence in Scripture and through personal experience that people can only respond to the grace that is extended to them and no more. In other words, we came to the position that a person who has no opportunity to know anything about Christ is not to be held responsible for that in any way. In fact, the notion that God acts first in extending grace to individuals really puts the ball in God’s court. If God has not provided any possible way for a person to know anything about Christ, then it would surely be inconsistent with an understanding of God’s character as one of grace to think that God would hold the individual responsible for that. The “time and opportunity” argument of Wesley would seem to apply here too.
However, we are still left with that tricky, hypothetical next-door neighbor to deal with! This person lives next door to us and drives past churches, sees books on Christianity in shops, talks with Christians, sees church services on TV, and so on, almost every day. There is no question that there is “time and opportunity”, to use Wesley’s words rather out of context, for this neighbor to encounter Christ.
Ultimately, we came down to the crux of the matter when one of us asked for reactions to the statement, “there is only one pathway that leads to God”. We considered the various positions that have been (and still are) held by people in response to this statement. It seems there is a continuum of opinion. At one end of the continuum is the position that “I am right and anyone who disagrees with me is wrong”. A step away from this position takes us to, “I am right and although the position of others may have some value it is still in large part wrong”. The continuum ultimately branches into two – one branch leads to the position, “Everyone is right and all faiths are culturally-conditioned expressions that seek after the same God”. The other branch leads to the position, “Everyone is wrong and there is no God”. We explored where we might be on this continuum and came up with a variety of responses that clustered in several areas:
Reaction 1: I have no idea if there is only one pathway or if there are many pathways that lead to God. The basis of this position is that we are called to be witnesses to our faith and not judges. Any comment on the validity of another path is a judgment and that is the prerogative of God.
Reaction 2: There is only one path but the path to salvation does not end at death and so there is “time and opportunity” after death for everyone to encounter the living God and enter a state of salvation. Ultimately then, all persons can (perhaps will) be at one with God.
Reaction 3: All faiths are culturally-conditioned expressions that seek after the same God but not all paths are equally useful (or, perhaps, valid). Hence there is a call to witness to the most useful (valid ?) path to God and that call falls to us.
Reaction 4: The atonement was a once-and-for-all event that makes possible the coming together of all people with God, whether they recognize its validity or not. In fact, if we are required to recognize its validity that is in itself a form of “works” and hence denies the all-encompassing action of God in effecting salvation.
Clearly there is a complex interplay of faith/works in considering these questions which will no doubt become more and more important in a post-Christendom era in the US when many faith groups are called to co-exist. It is one thing to understand the range of understandings of a group of Christians in this arena, but what the range of understandings that others might have? How would a group of Jews or a group of Muslims, for example, respond to these issues? How might we find out the answers to such questions?